Since Michael Jordan stepped onto an NBA court for the first time in 1984, earning an outsized payday has been a layup. Across his 15 NBA seasons, he hauled in $94 million and was the league’s highest-paid player in 1997 and 1998. But it was off the court where Jordan put serious air between himself and every other athlete on the planet, earning an estimated $2.4 billion (pre-tax) over his career with brands such as McDonald’s, Gatorade, Hanes and, of course, Nike, where his most recent yearly royalty check was for some $260 million.
Jordan had his biggest score in August, though, when he sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets at an eye-watering $3 billion valuation. Even if he had sold at Forbes’ most recent valuation, an estimated $1.7 billion in 2022, it would have been a coup for the 60-year-old Hall of Famer. Instead, the 27th most valuable franchise in the NBA traded hands for the second-highest sale price in league history and nearly 17 times its value when Jordan became principal owner in 2010.
That places him in rare air. With an estimated net worth of $3 billion, Jordan has arrived on The Forbes 400, marking the first time a professional athlete has ranked among America’s wealthiest individuals.
The prospect of a professional athlete becoming a billionaire is still highly irregular; only three individuals have ever done it. Jordan was the first to achieve that milestone in 2014, and LeBron James and Tiger Woods have since followed, doing so while their careers are still active. With sports salaries skyrocketing and off-the-field opportunities growing, more are surely to follow, evidenced by the fact that seven athletes, by Forbes’ count, have already notched $1 billion in career earnings before taxes, spending and agents’ fees.
Still, joining the three-comma club requires a perfect storm of favorable circumstances. Or as Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, puts it, “[athletes] need to get really lucky.” But that seems hardly the case for Jordan, who had success as soon as he entered the NBA.